In Kentucky, a Collaborative Approach to School Turnaround

Kelly Foster is the Associate Commissioner for the Office of Next Generation Schools and Districts at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). Over the last five years, KDE has seen an impressive reduction in the number of schools earning priority status—11 schools have exited priority status this year alone. We sat down with Kelly to find out what’s KDE’s secret.

You’ve exited roughly a third of your priority schools out of priority status this year. That’s an incredible accomplishment. How does Kentucky approach support for priority schools?

A priority school in Kentucky is in the bottom five percent of school performance statewide. In most cases, they have a graduation rate of 80 percent or below. Once a priority school has been identified, we assemble a diagnostic team to conduct a review in the school. The team is made up of current and retired educators, parents, a representative from higher education, and KDE staff. They look holistically at the school’s approach to education. They also determine leadership capacity: Does the principal have the capacity to lead the turnaround effort? The district housing that priority school undergoes a similar review, to determine if they have the capacity to support the work.

At the end of our review, we assign an Education Recovery (ER) team to the school. The team consists of an Educational Recovery Leader: in most cases, a former principal who mentors the priority school principal through the turnaround process. There are also two Educational Recovery Specialists: former classroom teachers, resource teachers, and coaches with backgrounds in math and reading. These folks are the cream of the crop. They're trained by our department on the best turnaround practices.

What happens after the team is assembled?

The team goes in and works with the school leadership and teachers. The first step is to use results from the diagnostic review to determine three big focus areas or “three big rocks,” as we like to call them. Typically, low‑performing schools need lots of fixing, but we can't do it all at once. We find it successful to hone in on three things we can do. You might have a big rock around climate and culture. Student behavior might be a big rock. Attendance might be a big rock. Every school is different.  

After we’ve decided on our three rocks, we create 30, 60, and 90‑day plans to tackle them. Different members of the team are responsible for different facets of the plan, and they're monitored weekly. In most cases, the team’s job is to build capacity: Help teachers and school leaders in the priority school build sustainable systems that will stay in place once the ER team leaves. We also look for opportunities for teachers and administrators in priority schools to receive additional professional learning experiences focused on their needs.

What are hub schools and what role do they play in the process?

Hub schools provide us with the opportunity to give free professional learning opportunities to struggling schools and districts across the state. We have three. At one point in time, each was identified as a priority school. One school has already exited priority status, the other two are on their way. We intentionally connect newly identified priority schools, focus schools, and focus districts to their closest hub school. Educators visit the hub schools and see research based practices that have led to increased student achievement in action. Last year, over 2200 educators across the state visited. Among them were teachers, principals, assistant principals, and superintendents.

What do the visits look like? What do they focus on?

Each hub school has their own system for providing professional learning opportunities across the state. One might focus on how to develop effective professional learning communities in a school. The hub school leadership team will run a session explaining how they analyze data in their PLCs and how to differentiate instruction based on that data. Another session might be on how schools can organize their schedules to ensure every child is on a college or career pathway. One hub high school has one hundred percent of their graduates college- or career-ready. They might lead a session on the system they built to ensure every kid has a focus on college and career readiness from day one of freshman year.

What results are you seeing from the hub school sessions?

We are seeing gains in about every school that visited a hub school. I think the biggest reason is that a visit to a hub school results in resources teachers and school leaders can act on. It's different from going to a conference. They are going into another school that has had the same issues they struggle with and moved past them.

How does KDE support hub schools? What does that collaboration look like?

We don't want to put more work on our hub schools—because they still have to educate their own kids—so our staff advertises the sessions and connects the work of the hub schools to priority schools, focus schools, and focus districts. We also help hub school presenters perfect their sessions. If you’re an English teacher who's figured out how to analyze student data effectively, we want you to show off your hard efforts.

Quarterly, here at the department, we bring in the Educational Recovery Leaders from the hub schools to find out what’s going on: What sessions have you had? How many people have been there? What schools have you reached out to and who hasn’t responded? How do we get them involved?

We also make sure the three Educational Recovery Leaders running each of our hub schools collaborate with each other. We want each school to know what the other is doing. That way if I'm at hub school A, and I get a call that somebody needs help with this particular issue, and I know that hub school C has a great system, I can set something up.

It’s clear that the Education Recovery team plays a huge role in the turnaround process. How much autonomy do folks at the priority schools have to design their own improvement plans?

In the beginning, very little. But it's different from school to school. I've worked as an Educational Recovery Leader myself, so I’ll give a personal example from a priority school back in 2010. The school had great people in leadership roles, but they weren't great leaders yet. They were all over the place. They weren't looking at student data or using it to drive instruction. They were spending a lot of time talking about things like dress code. I always like to say, “Successful schools don't talk about dress codes.” They ended up in priority status because they hadn't been focused on quality instruction.

As an Educational Recovery Leader, my job was to build trust with the school leadership team and make sure they’re focused on student achievement. It's a painful thing to be identified as a low‑performing school, and it’s a lot of work in the beginning to get everybody on the same page. That's why the three big rocks and the 30‑60‑90‑day plan is so important.

Ultimately you have let the leadership know you're there as a resource. It’s also good to acknowledge right away that they haven’t failed, that they aren’t bad people. Nobody goes into education that doesn't want to help kids.

Usually this approach works. It did for the school I worked with. They worked extremely hard. They took our advice and developed a strong leadership team and an excellent faculty. Since then, the culture and climate of that school has done a complete one-eighty, the school has scored proficient the last two years on the state accountability test and recently exited priority status. It takes time to get there, but we've got a lot of success stories in Kentucky, because of the hard work of the Education Recovery staff and the principals, teachers, and students in those buildings. That's what school turnaround is all about.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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